Recognized by Business Week as one of the best design schools in the world, the Lausanne University of Art & Design, known as Ecal, was just a local graphic and industrial design college less than 15 years ago. High octane creativity and adventurous partnerships have helped triple enrolment to the current 450 students, of which a quarter are foreign, and a Masters in Luxury & Design now completes the offer.

PICTURES ECAL

Along the way, the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne has gained a more snappy acronym, Ecal, and acquired spectacular new premises, a textile factory on the outskirts of Lausanne converted by Bernard Tschumi, a world famous architect of Swiss origin. “Ecal’s contribution to the inventiveness and future of design is now universally recognized,” acknowledged Yvette Jaggi, the former head of Pro Helvetia, the official Swiss cultural promotion agency and an ex-Mayor of Lausanne.

Ecal’s director, Pierre Keller, urges his students to be “curious, curious and more curious”. When he travels the world, he remains on the look-out for talented designers whom he attracts to Lausanne by “paying and dining them well,” he said. Nevertheless, the average age of the teaching staff is no more than 33 years. A former Ecal student, Sophie Dépery, is now a partner of the up-and-coming team of Swiss design firm Life Goods. She says that the influence of foreign professors, many of them famous in their own right, has not only given the students a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary design but has also helped them develop their own artistic personalities.

One of the keys to the Ecal’s success is innovative partnerships with product makers. Frédéric Bernardeau, the director of the eponymous fine Limoges porcelain manufacturer, was so delighted with the Ecal collaboration this spring at the Milan Furniture Fair that he has become a strong advocate for industry to invest in art education and not only technology. He fears however that the over-structured system in France cannot allow for the freedom that generated creativity in Ecal students and which he feels is vital to maintain many trades, including industrial ones, alive.

The same thought process appears to have motivated the creation of an “EPFL + Ecal Lab” with the scientists and engineers at the neighbouring Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. A Keller-perpetrated myth suggested that it was initially devised to ward off the undesired occupation of free space in his building by the social services of Renens, the suburban town where Ecal is newly installed. Keller contacted Patrick Aebischer, the director of the EPFL to suggest a collaboration between designers, architects and engineers. The resulting Lab has been entrusted to a former EPFL communications chief and science journalist, Nicolas Henchoz, whose mission, no less, is to prove that innovation is capable of “reinventing links between research and society”.

The most recent new project to date at Ecal is the launch of a Masters in Luxury and Design which, unusually for Switzerland, will be entirely financed by sponsors, including Hublot and Nestlé. No longer a school dedicated only to industrial design, Ecal claims to be a place where ideas are allowed to happen. More pragmatically, Switzerland is also home to luxury goods giant Richemont and a host of watchmakers that might be ready to pick up graduates from the new course.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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